Friday, March 26, 2010

A Reflection on the American Church and the Abortion Debate

Something's been troubling me recently about the way American Christians have participated in the abortion debate. Then, I read an essay by Stanley Hauerwas on abortion (referenced below) and my troubled thoughts were confirmed. It concerns what I think is a fundamental problem with the American Church's stance on abortion, one that is not only theological problematic, but also standing in the way of the Church making any cultural inroads on the matter in the US. (Notice I said "cultural inroads"--that is, making a transformational impact in our culture. I'm not talking about laws and legal policy in this post, although that is another important matter.)

I think it is wrong for the Church to frame the debate about abortion in terms of the woman's "rights" versus the child's "rights." It is wrong from a rhetorical perspective and an ethical perspective. Let me explain.

First of all, the language of "rights" arises from Enlightenment liberalism, which does not take into consideration the Judeo-Christian view of the human person in relation to the Creator God. Christians don't believe in "inalienable rights" (Thank you, Stanley Hauerwas!). Christians believe that everything about our lives matters to God and God has told us how we can and cannot live. The same goes for our bodies. Christians have no rights over their bodies. Those baptized into Christ have given their bodies over to God's reign. In this way, debating about rights is entirely unnatural for Christians, because we don't believe we have rights over anything!

Secondly, pitting the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child is also ethically problematic, because it forces us to choose between defending the one or the other, but not both. This too is entirely un-Christian. Women and children are made in God's image. They bear the mark of their Creator and have been designed by him with love and purpose. When Jesus taught his disciples that their ministry unto "the least of these" would be ministry unto him, I think he most certainly included women and children.

It should be obvious why children are among "the least of these." They possess nothing that our society finds valuable: money, power, or influence. And, yet, Jesus says the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. For this reason, children must be embraced by the Church and protected, for in their weakness, we see the face of our Lord.

It may not be quite so obvious why women are among "the least of these." Unfortunately, what secular feminism and liberalism have often failed to do is reveal just how vulnerable women still are in the US. There are two reasons for this. First, we tend to assume "women" equals white women. Compared to their brown, black, and tan skinned sisters, white women are doing pretty well. But, the plight of women of color in the States is an entirely different story, often one of poverty and struggle (which I don't have the time to document here). Second, the media's coverage of "women's stories" tends to focus on preferential hiring for women, women's rights, women advancing in higher education, etc, and its easy to get the impression that women (=white women) are doing quite well. But, in a broad view, that's just not the case. And, I'm not talking about "equal pay for equal work," either.

Let's consider one vital area where women are not prospering: violence against women. In the US, the evidence indicates that women are being abused every day, in every socioeconomic class, in every religious group, in every ethnic category, all over the country. Recent statistics tell us that every 15 seconds a woman is abused. Abuse is the single largest cause of injury to women in the US, greater than the number of injuries sustained from car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined. (Read that sentence one more time.) Thirty-five percent of women who seek treatment at a hospital emergency room are there for symptoms of ongoing abuse. Thirty to forty percent of female homicide victims are killed by their male partners. Every day, ten women are murdered by their male partners. And, every five years, more women are murdered by their intimate male partners than the number of all American lives lost in the Vietnam War.

We could take this picture global, too. Research has shown that a woman, whether living in the so-called First World or the developing world, is more likely to be injured, raped, or physically threatened by a current or former intimate male partner than by a stranger or any other person. On every continent, at least one in ten women report being physically abused by an intimate male partner. One in four women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime. This means that, of the approximately 4.5 billion women around the world, about 450 million have suffered physical abuse by an intimate male partner, and about 1.1 billion have been sexually assaulted. Indeed, if violence against women was swine flu, it would be considered a pandemic.

OK, so what's my point? Weren't we talking about abortion? Whether liberal media elites portray it this way or not, women are among "the least of these" in this country. They continue to possess a subordinate status in most situations, especially when it relates to their physical person and sexuality. For this reason, women and children are to be embraced by the Church as those in need of nurturing, care, and protection. I'm not trying to turn all women into helpless victims here, nor am I suggesting that all men are abusing women (of course not!). But, I think that the framing of the abortion debate in terms of women vs. child has made many Christians view women as "the problem"--and that is a problem!

It is my firm conviction that until the American Church begins to be as supportive of women's issues as they are against abortion, especially voicing continuous and loud opposition to violence against women, there will be no cultural progress made. The Church must be a champion of women. And, the Church must be champion of children. Both are welcomed into the open arms of Christ and both must know that they are wanted and loved by his Church.

Despite our preconceived (and often ill-informed) notions, a woman who gets an abortion rarely (if ever) does so because she's vehemently protecting her "right to choose." More often, she does so because she believes she has no choice. She has no reason to hope and she turns to what has been presented to her as an easy medical procedure to fix things. Typically, women are convinced that they do not have the means or capability to care for the new life they're carrying. Or, women are convinced that they will lose important relationships if they go through with the pregnancy (whether with family or men, or both). In both cases, the woman is made to believe that she is solely responsible for the life she carries--and that's simply not true.

Women facing poverty, abandonment, abuse, or other difficulties because of pregnancy should not believe they are alone. Its not enough to wave picket signs and confront women with pictures of aborted babies--to give her the choice between murder and hopelessness. The Church must become the defender of women. This can take place on a practical one-one-one level or at a structural level.

How many of us would have a young woman come live with us throughout her pregnancy and then offer her child a home, if she so desires? Are we prepared for the real inconvenience and sacrifice that would entail? How many of us would accept teenage mothers into the church, help pay their bills, and provide them with loving guidance for parenting? How many of us would adopt the Downs syndrome child that a young mother of three feels she can't provide for?

Or, getting beyond the personal, what about good, affordable healthcare for a mother and her child (even if *gasp* government funded)? What about supporting sufficient child allowances and ample federal standards for maternity leave (and I don't mean the paltry 6 weeks that most companies provide)? What about real protection for women in blue collar jobs who will, despite the legality, lose their jobs when they give birth? What shall we say about those things?

Christians must no longer pit the "rights" of the woman against the "rights" of the child. Not only does the Church not believe in "rights," because we have given up our rights to follow after Christ, also we care deeply about the lives of both women and children. And, when it comes to pregnancy and motherhood, we believe that they rise and fall together. Supporting a woman financially, emotionally, and physically during a pregnancy and after delivery means supporting the child, too. Offering a loving home to a pregnant young woman abandoned by her boyfriend means offering a home to the young woman's child. And, standing up to abusive men, male promiscuity, and deadbeat fathers means standing up for women and children, as well.

Again, I'm not talking about laws. I'm talking about the Church's ability to influence and transform cultural views of abortion. The Church of the resurrected Christ always greets new life as a joy and a miracle of God. In this world of violence, death, and destruction, it is the most absurd and the most profound thing that we continue to welcome children and believe that God's reign is salvation for them. In order to do so, however, we must change the way we speak about the abortion issue and the way we view women and children within the debate. It is imperative we turn this corner if we're ever going to approach creating a true culture life within a lost and dying world.

Abuse statistics come from a study cited in Betty Coble Lawther and Jenny Potzler, “The Church’s Role in the Healing Process of Abused Women,” Review and Expositor 98 (2001): 228-230.

Also, the above commentary was inspired by Stanley Hauerwas, "Abortion, Theologically Understood," in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001). You can find the text of this essay online in a number of places. One is here.


krisanneswartley said...

Thank you for sharing this, Emily. I love the thought progression-- it's well-articulated and contains great theology. My soul resonates with this! You've put into words some of my gut-reactions that I have failed to sort out clearly... from the "rights" question to the violence issue to the racial issues underlying the debate... Again- thank you!! Well done.

Nikki Hall said...

This aligns with my life's work...thanks for using your talent in words!! I'm hosting a film next Tuesday night at Miami called, 'The Greatest Silence:Rape in the Congo'...ART building 100 @ 8pm

Christiane said...

Thank you, Emily, for pointing out the needs of women and children holistically, or should I say 'with integrity'.
It is very true that 'the world' sees some Christians fiercely voicing opposition to abortion on the one hand, and turning their backs on the true complexity of the abortion issue (the 'real world' of women who feel that they must end a pregnancy).

So easy to 'speak out' if we don't have to do anything or pay anything.
We 'get credit' for identifying ourselves as a 'right to life' supporter just by talking the talk.
Doesn't cost a thing. No real commitment. And the world notices the disconnect. And they call it 'hypocrisy'.

How refreshing to read a Christian blog that recognizes the complexity of the needs of women and children, and plants the idea in the minds of the faithful that, yes, maybe we could DO MORE, so much more, than just talk.
Thank you, Emily. You understand.

Anonymous said...

Do 'real world' women seek the help of pregnancy crisis centres? Which exist to help the situation (not to mention adoption)?
Elements of the global modern society successfully and actively silence these groups and deflect the issue. I fear your article however good in intent will re-inforce that deflection.

Please don't equate violence against women with the real crisis of our times which is abortion. It is pandemic. Clearly the life taking is an order of evil higher than bickering, fighting and yes even non-life threatening assault.
Criminal courts interestingly parallel the view of life-taking as a graver matter than assault, albeit with the glaring error of no longer recognizing the child in the womb as a person.

The modern attack of evil is an atheistic thought has entered some Christian thinking and churches de-humanizing some humans - Today it is primarily focused on the fetus, through both Contraception and Abortion, and the loss of the understanding of human sexuality as complementary, pro-creative and pro-unitive.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Since you're taking the time to comment, I'd appreciate knowing your name.

We have some agreements, I think. I agree that human sexuality is inherently pro-creative and that, by and large, Christians have bought into a secular premise that some humans are "worth" having and some are not. We can see this in the rise of eugenics movement in the West, which Protestants supported by and large, as well as genetic testing in pregnant women, strong biases against large families, and many other things.

I would not agree, however, that this de-humanizing tendency is primarily focused upon the unborn (though there is no real way to "prove" this). I think American culture has become equal-opportunity in its de-humanizing, taking aim at the mentally challenged, the aged, the unborn, young black men, and, yes, women--especially women of color.

Also, I am not equating violence against women with abortion. By no means. Certainly they are not the same thing. And, abortion is most certainly a pandemic. But, I think it is unnecessary to set up a dichotomy between the two problems. We can say that both abortion and violence against women are grave matters without somehow downplaying one or the other. I don't know why we think we have to choose. There are many evils in this world--genocide, sex trafficking, slavery, etc--and all can rightly be called evil without lessening the evil of abortion.

In my post, I am suggesting how I think the Church can gain a greater hearing among the American culture on the abortion issue. And, I'm arguing that framing the debate in terms of women vs. children is wrong-headed, theologically and practically. From a practical perspective, I'm saying that the Church has not been a friend of women in some crucial areas and I'm using the issue of violence against women--which, despite your characterization, is a serious matter worldwide--as an illustration of this. (I would venture to guess that many non-Christian women avoid Christian-run crisis pregnancy centers particularly because they don't view the Church as their friend. I know if I had faced a pregnancy in my pre-Christian days, the last place I would have gone for help was the Church.)

I don't know what you mean by suggesting that I'm "deflecting" from the issue. I think I'm engaging the issue head-on and suggesting a couple ways to do so. I certainly applaud and support the work of all the various organizations seeking to assist pregnant women and work against abortion. In no sense am I "silencing" any group by voicing my own perspective on the matter.

I would like to point out that in your comments, you do exactly what I'm suggesting should not be done: pit the concerns of women against the concerns of children. (Perhaps this is what you mean about me "deflecting"--I'm not willing to engage in normal rhetoric about this issue.) I think the women vs. children framework is a theological problem and practically untenable. As long as we make women the enemies of children, we reinforce the secular narrative that children are the enemy of women (also false and also something I've blogged about). And, in this way, we'll never change the way our culture views children or make a serious dent in the prevalence of abortion in this country.

All this, however, is most certainly my studied opinion. I have a few people who agree with me, Stanley Hauerwas being one of them. But, you are more than welcome to disagree, of course.

Kimber said...

Emily-brillantly stated.

Christiane said...

Perhaps this is one example of the difference between:

standing in a line at an abortion clinic and screaming at the young women


offering real help to them: shelter, food, medical care, and the kindness of Christian caring

For me the two examples represent the depth of real commitment to saving human life. We must ask ourselves what is the depth of our commitment to Christ? I don't think we have a choice anymore. There is no longer any excuse for talking the talk without walking the walk. Too many Christian people are 'walking the walk' and responding to the 'real world' needs of the young women who are in trouble. And THEY are the ones who are saving babies.

Steve said...

It would seem easy and logical for the American church to become strongly against the abuse of women. Certainly the day needs to pass when fundamentalist Christians consider maintaining a violence-filled relationship preferable to divorce or separation.

If we are to continue as citizens of civil governments, however, you lose a lot of Americans with "Christians don't believe in "'inalienable rights.'" Those who would dehumanize people begin with denying them free speech, religious and other free association, and the freedom to own property.

I understand the difference between the lost who only see this life and our citizenship in a Heavenly Kingdom which acknowledges the transience of this created world, but if we worry at all about the rights of women and children to live in safety, shouldn't we start with confirming the inalienable rights our patriots insisted on?

I guess I am sayimg that only with government held at bay and within limits will Christians be able to make the present life safe for "the least of these."

Or have I comPLETEly missed your point again?

Strider said...

This is a fantastic post, thank you Emily!
As to the rights issue I think the concept of inalienable rights is to be thought of from a slightly different perspective. I agree that as Christians we have laid down our rights but in order to do that I must have them in order to give them up. In other words, if we say as a society we have no rights the wolves will come in and abuse us and we will just have to take it- and accept that others deserve it. If however, I agree that as God-created and God-loved people we all have infinite value and indeed 'rights' then I had better treat my fellow men/women with respect while at the same time giving what rights I could claim to Jesus and declaring that He has total claim on me and no one else.
Or, with Steve I might not have gotten what you were after in your 'rights' statements.

And I have said many times that behind every abortion is an irresponsible abusive man who is paying no price in our society for his bad behavior and that is wrong.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Steve and Strider,

I think you both have valid points about "rights" language. In fact, I woke up this morning thinking about how to square what I said (really, what Stanley Hauerwas says) about "inalienable rights" and my own feminist concerns for protecting women and children. I was pondering that one of the things that both unborn children and women have in common is that both are "targeted" for violence purely because they are unborn children and women. For example, when I worked in restaurants, I had to contend with male employees and customers who violated by bodily space (through a variety of means I won't mention), simply because I was female. The fact of my female body somehow made them think that I had no "rights" over my body--rights to not be touched, harrassed, etc. Fear of harrassment, rape, abuse, etc, is something women the world over face on a daily basis and some of that is closely tied to the fact that men don't believe they have "rights" simply because they are women. That's a major problem!

Certainly, I want to establish that women and children have the prerogative not to be fearful of rape, murder, etc. So, how do we talk about that without resorting to "rights" language? Its a difficulty, for sure.

Steve, the way I feel now, I'm not too keen on Christians adopting the founding father's language about inalienable rights. I understand why you and others would say we should--its a relatively "neutral" language to talk about the way we view humans as inherently valuable and inherently due a certain worth and protection. But, its not a language that arises from Christianity (and it often comes into conflict with it, as in the case of abortion). I'm concerned that by adopting the language of secular liberalism in voicing our ethics, we give too much away that is distinctive to the Christian story and way of life. We actually see humans as infinitely more valuable than the founders' language suggests--human beings are imago Dei. Not to mention the fact that the way the founders understood "inalienable rights" also must be understood in light of the fact that they counted black Africans as 3/5 of a person. Clearly, their conception of who possessed "inalienable rights" was ambiguous at best.

(Another important point for understanding where I'm coming from is that I'm very skeptical of making the "American story" the story of Christians in America. That is to say, I don't want to easily give up the fact that Christians are distinct from Americans in the sense that our loyalty is truly elsewhere. Furthermore, the things that make Christians distinctive don't necessarily jive easily with the "American dream" or so-called "American values.")

Even so, I agree that it is not helpful to say "Christians don't believe in inalienable rights" without qualifying that in a major way. Both of you are correct in saying that it is necessary, both for civil society and the protection of the innocent, to assert that there is something fundamental about the protection of the human person--body, mind, and soul. At this point, I think the best way to do so is to say, "Christians don't believe in this secular liberal construct called 'inalienable rights,' they believe that every person is made in the image of God. And this is far more meaningful for the purposes of doing Christian ethics than any talk of 'rights.'"

What do you gentlemen think? Does the distinctively Christian language (and theology) of imago Dei take us where we need to go in speaking of protecting the persons of women and children (and men!), but without resorting to secularized "rights" language?

Larhanya said...

Bravo! You have reflected beautifully on what is a complex issue. I recently "surfed" over to you after reading your comment on John Stackhouse's blog, and I love what I found.

My only "nitpick" with your post (and it is a little thing) is with the following:
"More often, she does so because she believes she has no choice. She has no reason to hope and she turns to what has been presented to her as an easy medical procedure to fix things."

In this age of legalized abortion, the procedure does seem "easy." It is clean, accessible, the doctors are certified, etc. But historically, desperate women who believed they had no choice turned to difficult and dangerous "medical" procedures in order to abort a pregnancy. I think I prefer to live in a world where girls and women aren't having their babies ripped out of them with coat hangers in filthy back-alley "facilities" (sorry for the graphic imagery).

All that to say, I agree with your conclusion that the issue is terribly complex and that the church has been framing the argument from entirely the wrong perspective. As a Christian who is also a feminist, I think the feminists have been framing the question the wrong way 'round as well, and inevitably everyone ends up yelling at each other about unrelated issues.

Thanks again for your great post (and awesome comments).

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

I remain confident that more American congregations can strive to protect the abused, ostracized, and neglected women and the children they bring with them, born and unborn. Many churches do a decent job of this, but I know we can improve.

The decision to abort a child forces a reaction from God-fearers, and while the responsible male may or may not be present, the female obviously is, so she inevitably is present for any confrontation whether she deserves it or not. That will be slow to change, but the environment can be improved, and we should strive for that.

Extending these intentions to alter one's membership in the state or protections of God-given rights just dosn't work for me. We can ask different levels of government to accomodate those needing assistance and protection, but we can still strive to keep government in its place.

(As far as the anti-slavery states' insistence on the 3/5 ratio, I suppose we can say political compromise always seems to leave everyone's glass half-full.)

We are especially mindful of our God-given rights at this time because they have never been as besieged or imperiled in our history as they are now. That does not have to mean we relax on making the U.S. a safe place for women, children, or anyone in perilous circumstances.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I don't quite follow you on "keeping government in its place." I guess I don't think the "place" of government is as self-evident as you do. I assume you're talking about limited government programs, etc? We may not see eye to eye on this one--the "place" of government. I'm not particularly convinced that the conservative notion of "small government" equals Christian government (or God's best for government or what have you). That is to say, I don't think evangelical theology necessitates "conservative" politics, per se. But, that's another post for another time, I think.

Also, I'm really uncomfortable talking about "God-given rights" in discussions of American government and politics. Not because I don't think rights are important, as I said, particularly in protecting the innocent and "least of these." But, because I think its a term we loosely throw around when we don't like the current laws or policies. (I'm not suggesting you're doing this at all. Its just something I observe on TV and internet, etc, when discussions get heated.) So, my question is what "God-given rights" do we have being "imperiled" at this time? I'm not being argumentative, Steve. I guess I just don't see the current political scene the same way you do.

Now that I look back over this comment, though, its quite a bit off the topic, isn't it? Don't feel obligated to respond. Maybe I can tackle the role of government in another post soon.

Anonymous said...

As one of the 1.1 billion who have been sexually assaulted by a known attacker, thank you for showing that "pro-life" is MORE than abortion.

I appreciate that you are willing to look at the bigger picture of what it means to see people (all people) as God sees them, rather than how government, insurance companies or even religious groups often choose to view the situations.

One thought I continually have about the abortion idea and many other decisions that come up in tough situations is that, while I may have really good, theologically sound position in mind, I have not been in a situation where I have had to make a tough choice. I really don't know what I would do if I were in the heat of the moment. I'm not sure I can truly understand the debate or discussion from where I stand. It makes me much more open to hearing other people who are facing these things. I hope I will always seek to understand before being understood on topics where I am not a first hand participant.


Steve said...


I suppose many of us, as soon as we become aware of God and then aware of how He changes people, become frustrate at how horribly religions and their followers make blanket assumptions about people, from racial hatreds to the genders to even what kids wear to church - and use Scripture or simple sentimentality/practice to defend them.

The founders referred to the freedom of speech, peaceful assembly, being left alone in their own homes, the press, religious faith, and others as "inalienable" because they were given from Above, not handed down from some earthly ruler, and not to be limited or impinged by rulers either. Since the capricious taxation situation was a major irritant, we can safely say that being able to hold onto the results of one's labors was definitely among these, although the Christian looks at that and thinks of the young ruler who couldn't respond to Christ due to his material wealth.

Conservatives see our freedoms under attack due to the things proposed openly and confidently by this administration and its associated hangers-on. The speak of censoring and controlling what information is passed through this Internet, and gov't has shown its ability to monitor vast numbers of e-mails, text messages, and phone conversations, as well as the installation of cameras in public and maybe-not-so-public places - to "protect" us, of course.

This week we have seen government decide when it will take police action against religious people who seem to have peacefully assembled, and we must assume there was some threat to public safety, just as there was at Waco and the terrible threat posed by Randy Weaver's son and wife at Ruby Ridge.

Personal property rights still haven't recovered from the local government taking land from homeowners like Jim and Joanne Saleet so that a more tax-paying enterprise could be built.

The threat to the continued fiscal health of the country from reckless spending by both parties in D.C. and the states is a cancer already worrisome to many. Today, our federal gov't has control of how much water toilets use, maintains plans to enforce limits of electricity use by homeowners, and a hundred other intrusions that Thomas Jefferson would have choked at.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thank you for sharing, Lory. I appreciate your transparency and sympathize with your reflections on sensitivity and humility.